African rulers who want to stay in office are increasingly using "security" as a reason for closing down social media. They fear popular protests on the street challenging their legitimacy that they will be unable to control and that might lead to their downfall. Uganda's recent closure of social media is but one instance of a steady stream of closures by frightened rulers. However, all is not doom and gloom as Russell Southwood spells out the good news and the bad news in these developments.
In January 2015 faced with anti-Government protests about a third term for the country's President that had begun to spread from the capital Kinshasa to the rest of the country, President Kabila shut down the Internet and in so doing cut off social media. The Internet was restored only six days later after the protests had subsided.
In April 2011, the Ugandan Government appears to have blocked both Facebook and Twitter: users trying to access them get a message saying "Server not found".
But up until recently the majority of attention by African Governments has been paid to the use of SMS messaging to spread campaign news and organise protests. The worst occasion of this kind of banning SMS was the Ethiopian Government after the contested elections in 2005. The ban remained in force for two years. In Ethiopia, the opposition party Kinijit was particularly effective at using text messaging to mobilise its supporters and get them to the polling booths.
When the election result was announced the government took fright, contested what had happened and then moved quickly to shut down the SMS service to ensure the opposition party couldn't use it again. With no acknowledgement of why it had been banned, subscribers simply received the following message two years later announcing its re-opening: "[Wishing] you [a] happy Ethiopian Millennium. And now the SMS service is launched."
During the food price riots in Mozambique in September 2010, both mobile phone operators in Mozambique, M-Cel (government-owned) and Vodacom , bowed to pressure and suspended their text messaging services but then said that they had not done so, according to Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique (AIM).
On 6 September 2010 people who used pre-paid M-Cel and Vodacom cards found it was impossible to send text messages. Since the Maputo riots of 1-2 September had been mobilized via text messages, it was immediately suspected that the government had ordered the companies to halt the text message service.
But when Transport and Communications Minister Paulo Zucula was asked about the matter, he denied giving any such order. "I'm the minister in charge of communications, and I have no knowledge of any instruction to suspend the messaging services", he told reporters. Both M-Cel and Vodacom assured AIM that the interruption to the messaging service was entirely due to technical problems.
On Friday night, interviewed by the independent television station TIM, Fernando Lima, chairperson of the media company Mediacoop, which publishes the weekly paper "Savana" and the daily newsheet "Mediafax", displayed a copy of the letter which the regulatory body, the INCM had sent to the two operators. The closure was short lived and normal service resumed quickly.
But with the spread of data-enabled featurephones and smartphones and the increasing number of Facebook users, African Governments are now using social media bans as a way of closing down discussion and street protests. Uganda returned to this effective way of closing things off during its recent election.
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni said social media sites were taken down as a temporary security measure. He said the move was necessary because some people were using Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to peddle lies. "That steps must be taken for security to stop so many (social media users from) getting in trouble; it is temporary because some people use those pathways for telling lies. You tell lies but you do not know that the authorities (can) restrain those (platforms) for some time."
Taking its cue from the President, the independent telecoms regulator the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) cited an unspecified national security reason for the shutdown of social media and of mobile money sites. "The UCC has directed MTN to disable all social media & mobile money services due to a threat to public order & safety," one of the companies affected MTN stated.
And you want to know the good news? Uganda has 1.8 million Facebook users and within a short period of time 1.5 million of them had downloaded VPNs, a technical way of avoiding the Government shut-down, according to an infographic posted on Facebook by Teddy Ruge.
The sources for this figure? The first source was Lifehacks magazine website. The second was @Trustzoneapp, makers of the trust.zone VPN app for Android. It confirmed over half a million downloads of its app. @VPNcompare, out of UK, confirmed over a million Google searches for VPNs from Uganda on the day of elections. In other words, there was a high level of interest in evading the shutdown and many people will have found and used VPN software to do this.
Karl Kathuria, CEO, Psiphon Inc, a provider of free, open source VPN software immediately noticed the spike in interest:"Before the shutdown we had a very low number of users in Uganda. After the shutdown, those who knew about our software started posting about it and there was a big jump on our network and at its peak there were over 7,000 users a day. It's dropped again but a lot of users are aware of the site and it will go up again much faster next time."
Psiphon was only one of several providers but Kathuria points to its experience in Iraq where use of its software went from a few thousand to 1.8 million after a social media ban. The software is easy to obtain: either via the Google Play Store or there are email addresses you can write to and be sent the software. Interestingly it already has thousands of users in both Nigeria and South Africa.
And the bad news? These kinds of short, sharp shutdowns will become more popular with Africa's more authoritarian rulers. More developed African economies will find it nearly impossible to do a complete Internet shutdown but the more targeted social media bans are almost inevitable. Accessnow.org which is campaigning against these types of shutdowns lists the following countries as having used them: Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Worse still, there are perhaps more insidious controls on the way. According to Kathuria:"It's a bit of a cat and mouse game. Sites (VPN providers) want to keep access to the Internet. Deep packet inspection of traffic going in and out of the country can be used but there are not many countries operating like that".
A letter protesting the Ugandan shutdown was signed by Access Now, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS), Article 19 East Africa, Chapter Four Uganda, CIPESA, CIVICUS, Committee to Protect Journalists, DefendDefenders (The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Electronic Frontier Foundation, Global Partners Digital, Hivos East Africa, Index on Censorship, ifreedom Uganda, Integrating Livelihoods thru Communication Information Technology (ILICIT Africa), International Commission of Jurists, ISOC Uganda, Kenya, KICTANet, Media Rights Agenda, the African Media Initiative (AMI), Unwanted Witness, Web We Want Foundation, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.